Change represents future opportunities on our high streets: Cllr Toby Savage

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Cllr Toby Savage at Kings Chase Shopping Centre, Kingswood
Cllr Toby Savage at Kings Chase Shopping Centre, Kingswood

“The thing that has made a massive difference is the people in our business and how they have reacted to it. They have been absolutely fantastic,” explained Sir John Timpson at a House of Commons inquiry about how the Government can support high streets after Covid-19.

The owner and chairman of Timpson spoke of his immense pride in his staff. This sentiment could apply to every high street trader in South Gloucestershire whose resilience to keep the tills ringing can only be admired. Every business has played its part in helping our high streets to thrive in almost impossible conditions.

But what of the future? There was already change happening on our high streets. Covid-19 has accelerated this change in South Gloucestershire and the UK with more online shopping and more home working. These changes provide opportunity.

About half of consumers expect to shop locally more often post-pandemic than they did before. Consumers now favour shopping locally at a small, independent retailer over shopping centres*. And in Sir John’s words, high streets need to “reinvent themselves and be reimagined” as places where as well as shopping people will want to “make a day of it and have something to eat, something to drink and so on.”

Taking advantage of these opportunities will rebalance how we all use high streets. Shopping is part of this different future. But following the pandemic, people increasingly use high streets for leisure, learning, meeting up with friends, family, and even work colleagues. The different high street uses all reinforce each other. For example, a family may take out books at the library, visit a café for lunch, buy hardware items for a DIY project, and finish their trip at the local play park.

During our recent ‘Help Us Thrive’ campaign to encourage residents to support their local high street, I visited many traders of goods and services. I saw first-hand that the limitless combinations of this ‘whole experience’. But high streets must have the backing from Government to thrive and make this offer as strong as possible.

The Council awarded £400,000 of ‘Help us Thrive’ grants to support local high streets to adopt new technology, grow employment, and encourage greater diversity. Traders received most of the pot. But community groups wanting to get involved in shaping the new high street also applied successfully. For instance, Jigsaw Thornbury, a charity that supports children and young people with additional needs and disabilities. Their grant funded an accessible venue to bring their three service locations into one and recruit a staff member to recruit and train new volunteers. We have also made high streets more attractive and welcoming for people by installing new bins and carrying out graffiti removal.

Our acquisition of Kings Chase Shopping Centre for £10 million represents a change of pace in responding to the future of high streets. There is the potential for leisure, housing, and community services to revolutionise Kingswood high street. With this greater variety of uses come the stronger ‘whole experience’ that I have described, greater footfall, and more opportunities for the high street, including hospitality and retail, to thrive. We will take a similar approach with Yate Town Centre.

But the public investment can only go so far. On the frontline of embracing change is people.  From shopkeepers who offer different ways of paying, such as buying in-person, click and collect and home delivery, to the local bar-restaurant whose owner wants to reimagine the area outside their premises to provide seating outdoors. These are the local champions that will make our high streets into examples of success. So, all shops, facilities, and public spaces can thrive in the Post-Covid world and for generations ahead.

The Council is looking forward to working with local chambers of commerce, trader partnerships, community groups, and residents to achieve this goal. If you have any thoughts on this perspective of changes to our high streets or how you could help, I will welcome your feedback at highstreets@southglos.gov.uk

Council Leader, Councillor Toby Savage

* =  Shopify Research: https://www.shopify.co.uk/retail/uk-shopping-data